In the Temple of Broken Hearts
by Monk Alexander
(Translated from Russian)
Search for me,
A needle in a haystack,
Find where I lie,
Pain hidden by a rag,
Here I hide — from you? —
Bloody wounds, undried and shining,
I hide, fearing
Your loving hands hold salt.
— (from a Belarusian poem)
The Moral Schism
Everyone’s faith and love is put to the test by something: misfortunes, psychological difficulties, moral perplexities, even by our happiness. Each of these tests is in one way or another, linked with suffering — the degree of suffering connected with the amount of evil within and around his life. All of this entails the growth of self-knowledge, a probe of his depths, and painful as it might be, it is indelibly linked with any spiritual progress.
Tests come in life, and man looks into his soul. He becomes conscious of his sin. He sees what lies on the surface of his consciousness — spiritual warps, moral inconsistencies, and defects of reason. He will, in doing this, undoubtedly experience grappling thoughts and negative emotions. And the growing knowledge of his nothingness and powerlessness, of his need for help from the outside — from God — is usually the beginning of the Christian Way.
The Way, through tests, introspection, and suffering, is hard and has many pitfalls. There is a strong temptation to look for happiness and consolation right from the beginning. If we experience disillusionment or disappointment, then we might start fearing that our journey to God might turn into torment and punishment.
We must face this fact: there can be no true comfort or consolation without first passing through radical repentance, without deep heart-knowledge of the horror and destructive force of our sin. The Christian Way is ineffably consoling, but comfort is not reached by chasing after it. If we look for Truth, Jesus Christ, and rejoice in our sufferings, according to His precepts (Matt. 5:11,12), we might reach happiness and consolation in the long run. But if we search for comfort, we will get neither comfort nor Truth, only self-deception in the beginning and despair at the end.
Only after we understand that a moral law exists, supported by God’s power, that we have broken this law and how we should properly relate to this Power, only then we begin to understand what True Christianity has to say. It says that we have fallen into such a state that we simultaneously love and hate good, and that is why we are afraid to look the facts in the face. And that is because the facts are fearsome. Thus, there is nothing to say to people who are not conscious of what they have to repent of and who feel no need for forgiveness whatsoever.
People, who live by the flesh, protesting their moral obligation to God, attempt to be guided solely by “love” in their search for Truth. To them Christianity appears to consist only of rules and regulations. It is true that morality is not in itself sufficient; virtue exists for the sake of Truth, not vice versa. Love liberates us from the power of any law, and, as Saint Macarius the Great says, “He who attains love cannot fall”.
But many deceive themselves, rejecting moral laws before time, having no love, but only a vague concept of it and even a more nebulous concept of any moral obligation. And strangely enough, it is spiritual books and study of everything spiritual that ‘help’ many to reach this miserable state of being. About the over-intellectualization of the spiritual, the Holy Fathers say: “If anyone is diligent in reading and writing, but has no corresponding increase of virtue, his end will be terrible”. The most terrible thing is the inability to love or to respond to God’s love. This is the beginning of infernal tortures. The cause of all this is not only idle curiosity about things, which our consciousness cannot hold, but also seeking after them in word and deed.
It is very dangerous to translate the experience of faith into the language of concepts. This is the beginning of numerous illusions and errors. A skilful sophist can successfully defend both thesis and antithesis, but such resourcefulness and sharpness of mind do not make a man any nobler, even in their most perfect condition. We can understand only what we are aware of, but the one who has attained ‘Christ’s mind’ does not pay any attention to his thoughts or his earthly wisdom. He is simple in the Lord. Often however, God’s wisdom is taken as foolishness and insanity in this world.
The Holy Fathers say that “God’s grace comes not only to those who search for it,” He sends His grace where He will. God foresees the response of a man to His grace, and this is the reason why we do not have Divine Gifts, such as faith, love, the Divine mind, etc. Thus, before God starts serving the man, the man should first serve God by faithfully performing his moral duty. We cannot say that all of this is easy and pleasant. No, this is so hard that the Holy Fathers compare this moral labour to death and re-birth. Saint Gregory the Theologian says: “The first birth is parental, the second comes from God, and in the third, man gives birth to himself through tears of repentance and grief”. This grief is somewhat comparable to the magnitude of the Divine Gift. For, according to Saint Isaac the Syrian, “God leads the soul into grief and temptations according to the magnitude of grace given”.
Mankind was conceived as a single whole, a reflection of the image and likeness of God. Man’s attempt to break away from this whole and to live independently (individually) constitutes the tragedy of Adam’s original sin, to which we once gave and continue to give our consent. Thus, a man developed two wills — one directed outward, the other inward. The schism of human nature brought the schism of our universe. Evil was not made eternal, but was ousted into the temporal, sensual, and material domain to be corrected and eventually annihilated. It does not mean that God hid from man, leaving him to his own devices, to the illusion of human self-sufficiency, which supposes the existence of the source of being within oneself (“and you will be like God”, Gen. 3:5). God does not turn away from wicked men, for “It is silly to say,” according to Saint Anthony the Great, “that the sun hides itself from the blind”. It means that God, allowing Adam to die a material death, saved him and us from a greater evil — spiritual death in eternity (so that he would not eat of the Tree of Life and live forever).
At present, during this mortal life on earth, we are to get our food in the sweat of our face in order to keep our ‘independent’ existence. And by doing this, we are to rectify the habits of our free will, which are inaccessible to God, so that the gap between the mind and the heart, between the spirit and the soul would be closed, and we could conform our own will with God’s will towards us, as befits the purpose of our creation. Overcoming the schism of the human nature is a matter of the whole life. Its last step is death. Only by dying consciously and daily can we exhaust death “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 COR. 5:4). Only by having started to live as an integral person and not as a biological individual fixed upon ourselves and within ourselves, can we establish contacts with other personae — with God and with men. Until we stop our ‘independent’ existence, we can never start life as it befits a man — after God’s image and likeness, in other words, become a true man.
Restoring the Unity
The first step on this path is to become oneself by a gradual elevation towards transformation into God’s image and likeness — through prayer and following the Lord’s commandments, — for it is also possible to live someone else’s life, as a poor copy of someone. Saint Isaac the Syrian says: “Sink into yourself away from sin, and there you will find steps of your personal ascent”. He is referring to a going down into the depths of one’s heart through prayer. “To put on Christ” and “to put off an old man” is to move away from the sinful self to my actual self, to my “image and likeness”. It has been called a flight from our sinful twin.
“Twin” is that with which we identify ourselves, our body and the whole psyche connected with it, i.e. thoughts and all our five senses. Our thoughts and images get materialized in our soul and form a different world with an illusory existence. When we enter it, we go away from our true selves into an imaginative reality. However, the genuine “I” is not something that belongs to me (my thoughts, features of character, etc.), — all this is transient and vanishes as smoke. “I” is eternal and is not subject to any change.
We fill up our consciousness with symbols, circuits, and terms as in a computer, but contrary to the machine, this play of imagination disappears into non-existence. It turns immediately into flesh and life. Image-building symbols are the reality we live, or better, we exist in. The ability to create existence out of “non-existence” is characteristic of a man, but we are only “small-c” creators. For example, our thoughts cause a change in the chemical composition of our blood, a thought of food brings appetite, but thoughts of spiritual matters cannot spiritualize our nature. We can only deal with our own energies, which are already created by God. But non-created energy, i.e. God’s grace, is given only by God, provided that we observe His commandment — love. To make the first step to ourselves, we need to bring our feelings into their natural condition, i.e. to reject sensual pleasures, exceeding natural needs. This, of course, does not concern those for whom sin, a departure from grace — filled to sensual enjoyments, has become a natural necessity.
To succeed in this, we should cultivate sufficient contempt for our own personal narrow interests and goals, no matter how important they might seem to us. This is the only way we can make room in our soul for another person. We must stop dialoguing with our own “twin”. It means overcoming the schism of human nature, my individualism, forgetting about and working on sinful problem areas (sinful because they are my own), seeing myself in another human being. This is the greatest happiness of overcoming our loneliness. Only by starting to work on ourselves in this manner, can we come to know spiritual labour for the sake of another human being. It means mourning over my own “dead” and starting to mourn for others and together with others. During this labour, spiritual loneliness is overcome, an all-idealising love for all creation awakens. Despite the fact that negative qualities can undermine our faith in a person, we must still have faith in his Divine essence and potential until the end, no matter how low he has fallen. This focus on the positive brings us closer to the genuine reality, to God’s original image in man and mankind.
If another person does not become higher and worthier in my own eyes than myself, then my “ego” will never step over the limits of its self-importance and individualism. That is why it is so important to place the centre of gravity outside myself, in another person. This means to be ready at any moment to renounce my own interests for the sake of someone else’s interests, to cultivate in myself a precious feeling of undivided concern for another person. It is hard to do all this, but it is extremely necessary to do so, otherwise our “twin” will cause our degradation and the decay of our consciousness.
The main goal of our life is a permanent prayer for God’s grace and help in order to enable ever-increasing labour over myself in the name of another person, to advance the departure from myself into the life of my neighbour. This is Christ’s paradise. In this way, it should not be hard for us to make a step towards a person, rather than passing him by. We will not block ourselves from someone’s joy or grief with our “twin”, nor will we prefer our personal goals and interests to sacrificing love for God and our neighbour.
It is very important to understand that we are responsible not only for ourselves, our passions and desires, but also for the others, for humankind is a single whole. However, in order to join this whole, we have to ask for forgiveness not only for ourselves, but also for our brother — if he, for example, is offended at me — to ask that he also be forgiven. This is the only way God’s image can be restored in man, through unity and mutual exchange.
The more I pray for the others or grant them practical help, the more I receive myself, for it is impossible to receive without giving. This is the law and axiom of spiritual self-perfection, perfection in love. We forget about this great spiritual law and commit a grave error by blocking ourselves from God and people with our “twin”, who suffers from different psychological complexes and pursues personal goals (his own idea of salvation, perfection, etc.)
Sometimes, it is necessary to distance ourselves from people in order to acquire love for them; but if we give them Christ’s love, we acquire it for ourselves. Thus, we will rise over our “personal” love, personal grief or joy, and will derive enormous power even from our own suffering, which would inspire the others. This is how we can fulfill the whole law, for the Gospel says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). And we know that Christ’s law is love.
The Beginning of Love
True love starts when we let others be the way they are, rather than adjusting our impression of them to our own liking. Otherwise, we will love only our own fixed perception of them. It is necessary to understand ourselves and everyone else as God’s creatures, to see God’s image and dignity in ourselves and in others. He granted it to everyone of us, and if we hurt this dignity in others, we actually hurt ourselves.
We have no power to change another person, and we should not waste our time analyzing why he behaves this way or that. Let him follow his own path. We should accept people as they are, otherwise our intrusion can prove to be destructive. A person might know what we expect of him and behave the opposite way. Just as a sign of protest. Every person has his own stimuli and interior motives, which are not subject to our understanding. Therefore we must not violate the right of others to live the way they want. We have to liberate ourselves from concerns about anything that lies beyond human capabilities, and learn to depend upon the Divine Power, God. Otherwise, we reach a dead-end, where one unconquerable will tries to conquer the other unconquerable will. If God Himself has no power to lift the stone of man’s will that He has created, how much less is it within the power of man! Humility in this case signifies quiet and simple acceptance of everything that is beyond our power. We have to preserve energy for things that are within our power. Understanding that only God can make the other person change, we have to diminish all of our internal drives that oppose His power, so that it could start working in us and through us.
The only thing God cannot (or does not want to) overcome in us is our own free will, which we turn into tyranny and self-will. If we, however, are convinced that not everything depends on us and that many things, especially fateful, can be fixed only by God, then denying our self-will is paramount to saving a man, say, from despair. And we have to pay this price, if we want to obey God and offer Him the chance to work in us and through us.
If Christ occupies the most important place in our life, we do not need any technical or psychological tricks in order to restore our spiritual health and that of our neighbors. Let us assume we are suffering and can not find the way out, but this is only because we imagine that everything depends solely on us. We have to make a determined step towards God and stop tormenting ourselves, instead of trying to solve minor and numberless problems, for they only consume our energy and exhaust our spiritual potential. Let us admit our own powerlessness and thus get rid of our self-will, which blocks the way to God.
We must do only what we can, what we are supposed to do and do the best we can in that. The possibility of doing this is granted only for today. It is wrong to think that “time will come when I…”, for it means that we deceive ourselves. Right now we cannot conquer certain conditions, but if we entrust our life to God’s will right now, today, by rejecting our own will, we liberate ourselves from tension. There is no more need for struggle. However, it does not mean that we can relax and expect God’s will to work. God’s will means that I should not betray love under any circumstances in my life, no matter who I am or where I am. Relying on God’s will means to become aware that it is impossible to keep this loyalty without His help.
It is certainly possible, after the reliance upon God’s will, to turn our back not only on our problems, but even on God and our neighbor, expecting that all the work will be done for us and without us. Here and everywhere else we need a sense of measure, for such self-deception will only increase our problems.
To exclude self-deception from the very beginning, it is necessary to explore the genuine motives behind every decision, followed by concrete action. Otherwise, if we let ourselves be deceived in the very beginning, then all our hopes will be ruined by the expectation that life will be adjusted according to our own idea about it.
Therefore it is impossible to solve all the problems at once. We have to choose one aim and follow it steadily, gradually, and carefully, for slow movement, as known, brings one sooner to the destination, if we mean here the strict self-testing of genuine motives of our behaviour. And love of God is certainly the best stimulus for any action.
Our task is to learn to love by imitating Christ’s love. And the main condition here is overcoming our own egotism and self-will. This of course is not a simple task. Those, who were allowed to follow their will in childhood, have it the hardest. Obedience, i.e. renouncing your will, is an expression of love. For an adult, it means preferring someone else’s will through love. For a child, it is doing what you are told without questioning. If a man does not have this experience of obedience and love, then his psyche inevitably becomes unstable, vulnerable, and is overcome with psychological complexes and even with various diseases.
Even though God made us all potentially whole, to remain in this condition is very hard, at times just impossible. Bringing order into spiritual chaos, left by those who have been with us since the moment of our birth and “nurtured”, is not an easy task. Some resort to reading books and try to bring order into their spiritual world by changing their minds. But this way — from the outside inward — does not always bear good fruit. Very often, a person simply drowns in the whirlpools of his own thoughts, since it is difficult to bring life into this dead load of thoughts that are kept in our mind.
No work of mind can make up for the virtual experience of love, the only thing, which possesses the highest value, for it is only love that has access to the source of existence, God. As Antoine de Saint — Exupery puts it, “The human mind is not worth anything unless it is a servant of love”.
Spiritual love, according to the Holy Fathers’ teachings, destroys all kinds of passions and psychological complexes, and thus is a panacea for all diseases. It places everything where it belongs. At first, it helps us to discern the good self from the evil self. This first step of genuine self-knowledge is made through love, and we know that no spiritual progress is possible without it. This is the only way we can learn to separate ourselves from the burden of endless troubles, engendered by our “twin”. This does not mean that we will have no conflict with ourselves, for without it we would not be able to move forward. It does mean we have to have the right attitude to any provocation coming from outside or from our inside. Other people or our own motives will influence us only if we allow them to. Then we will be able to voluntarily accept pain that anyone is going to afflict on us, and this will be not as much pain, but rather joy and happiness of life according to the laws of love. Before we have achieved this state, our soul should not delve into anything that we cannot overcome, which forms a powerful protection against all evil around us.
What can words do to me, if I do not take them to my heart? Or my own complexes, if I do not attach any significant importance to them? Certainly, it is impossible to isolate myself completely from my own problems and those of my neighbour. It is however necessary to strictly observe how much to take on, conforming it with my own power and with the power of my love. The Holy Fathers say: “May each person dedicate himself to the ascetic battle only to the degree of his soulful love for God”.
Today is The Day of Salvation
However, waiting for the moment when we finally acquire love, when we finally become better and kinder, is sometimes very dangerous, especially when most urgent help is necessary. For example, hatred, rancor, and offence should be driven away from our thoughts immediately, before this poison spreads any deeper. And this has to be done as fast and as mercilessly as possible. We must not savor our emotions too long — feelings of depression, guilt, pity, and compassion towards ourselves. Otherwise, we will blow them up to the size of a tragedy, after which we can imagine ourselves martyrs. If we failed or were not able to choose the best — for example, to take offence or not, — and have already indulged into this feeling, then we need to know that we have sunk to the inferno of our sub-consciousness, and it is not us who has life any more. It is our “twin” that has life. In this case, we have to sink even deeper, and then we will find that a thick layer of guilt, offence, and psychological complexes conceal our genuine Divine essence. This is how the respect for the present self will be restored, and how the contempt for our “twin”, i.e. sin, will evolve.
Man, like God, can freely determine the manner of existence of his own nature. God’s image does consist only of external freedom and reason, for in case of deficiency in these areas, man would turn into an animal. This would be an unfair punishment. The difference between a man and an ape is first of all the ability to respond to God’s love or to reject it. This ability does not depend on human physical or psychological functions. If it was not so, how can we have the ability of self-sacrifice, which even overcomes the instinct of self-preservation? No defect of reason can deprive a man of his inner self, of his ability to communicate with himself, similar to the counsel with Himself of the Holy Trinity. Our “I” is clearly aware of its difference from the nature it occupies. It simply expresses itself in psychological and physical functions. In doing this, it creates its own world where it lives and finds its own enjoyment (instead of enjoying Divine grace). Like Dostoyevsky’s Stavrogin, we identify ourselves with this world. God says: “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart — they defile the man” (Matt. 15:18). And as grace in the heart increases, the man stops identifying himself with what proceeds from his heart, but identifies himself with Divine grace. Self-consciousness is not destroyed, but gets broader and deeper into “itself”, into its Divine likeness. Naturally then, it forgets all its personal interests. Therefore, the Holy Fathers say: “He who has deigned to see himself is higher than the one who has seen Angels”.
This all, however, requires strict measurement. It is easy to go to extremes if we do not observe a measure in good or evil. Concentrating upon one’s own merits only means reinforcing one’s egotism, and vice versa, taking up a back — breaking load of reproach to oneself means an utmost overstrain. In this case, we will indeed destroy the last bits of self-dignity in ourselves. It will be the ultimate catastrophe for a proud man, even for a believer, who is tempted with pride. He would like to be a person of worth, but turns into nothing in his own eyes, and therefore thinks he has nothing to give to God. Thus, it is very important in this situation to restore respect to one’s true spiritual self. So that a proud man would not lose his faith in holiness, this kind of lesser evil (respect or self-esteem) is allowed.
It is necessary to arm ourselves with tenacity and patience in order to be able to control ourselves without losing power over ourselves. Not everything can come at once, and we must not expect much for the present moment. We must thankfully accept all that God has given us for the present day according to our labour and zeal, instead of being vexed that life does not become any better. This may still not be humility, but it is the real perception of life. If I see my good qualities not as mine, but given to me by God, then I will be able to accept them with genuine humility. How many unrealized plans and disappointments do we have only because we expect too much from life! “Look at the child putting his hand into a jug with a short neck, an ancient sage said, if he grabs too many sweets, he will not be able to take his hand out”.
Let us think about all the good things God gives us in our life, and then they will increase and will oust all the bad ones. But here we have to bear in mind that good does not necessarily mean pleasant. If we savour details of our misfortune, we will be sucked into the swamps of sad thoughts with the danger of suffocating in our own mud. Saint Ephraim the Syrian said: “You will smell the stench of a dung-heap, as long as you stand beside it”.
Let us learn to rejoice at all the good things the present day brings with it, then we will not burden ourselves with solving our future problems. Jesus Christ says: “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matt. 6:34). In medical terms, the preoccupation with something that has not yet taken place is called a ‘dark perspective disorder’. The Gospel warns us against this disorder by proclaiming to live in the present day. It is necessary to turn from the past and cast off thoughts about the future in order to discover unlimited potential of the present day. This day is unique, for it will never be repeated again. It comprises the whole experience of my previous life and all the potential for the future. It belongs to me and I can do whatever I want with it. I can fill it with vain trouble and anxiety, or I can dedicate to God.
Today is the day God has given me. If I could realize what kind of gift it is to me, I would use every moment of it to make my life brighter and more meaningful spiritually. I would not look back to the past in disappointment, would not reflect anxiously about the future. I would try to live it the best I could. I would notice everything interesting and divine in my life and nature around me. Thirst for beauty, thirst for life is characteristic of every living thing, but it is conscious only in man. Today, by dying consciously for all that has nothing in common with the Divine life, we can be born into a new life in God, the name of which is love.